Thursday, September 24, 2009

Victory! Court Finds USDA Violated Federal Law by Allowing Genetically Engineered Sugar Beets on the Market

Government Failed To Evaluate Environmental and Economic Risks of Monsanto Product

In a case brought by Center for Food Safety and Earthjustice representing a coalition of farmers and consumers, a Federal Court ruled yesterday that the Bush USDA’s approval of genetically engineered (GE) “RoundUp Ready” sugar beets was unlawful. The Court ordered the USDA to conduct a rigorous assessment of the environmental and economic impacts of the crop on farmers and the environment.

The federal district court for the Northern District of California ruled that the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (“APHIS”) violated the National Environmental Policy Act (“NEPA”) when it failed to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (“EIS”) before deregulating sugar beets that have been genetically engineered (“GE”) to be resistant to glyphosate herbicide, marketed by Monsanto as Roundup. Plaintiffs Center for Food Safety, Organic Seed Alliance, Sierra Club, and High Mowing Seeds, represented by Earthjustice and the Center for Food Safety, filed suit against APHIS in January 2008, alleging APHIS failed to adequately assess the environmental, health, and associated economic impacts of allowing “Roundup Ready” sugar beets to be commercially grown without restriction.

“This court decision is a wakeup call for the Obama USDA that they will not be allowed to ignore the biological pollution and economic impacts of gene altered crops,” stated Andrew Kimbrell Executive Director of the Center for Food Safety. “The Courts have made it clear that USDA’s job is to protect America’s farmers and consumers, not the interests of Monsanto.”

While industry asserts that the adoption rates of GE sugar beets has been high, food producers have shown reluctance in accepting GE beet sugar. Over 100 companies have joined the Non-GM Beet Sugar Registry opposing the introduction of GE sugar beets, and pledging to seek wherever possible to avoid using GM beet sugar in their products.

Sugar beet seed is grown primarily in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, which is also an important seed growing area for crops closely related to sugar beets, such as organic chard and table beets. GE sugar beets are wind pollinated and will inevitably cross-pollinate the related crops being grown in the same area. Such biological contamination would be devastating to organic farmers, who face debilitating market losses if their crops are contaminated by a GE variety. Contamination also reduces the ability of conventional farmers to decide what to grow, and limits consumer choice of the foods they can eat. In his September 21, 2009 order requiring APHIS to prepare an EIS, Judge Jeffrey S. White emphasized that “the potential elimination of a farmer’s choice to grow non-genetically engineered crops, or a consumer’s choice to eat non-genetically engineered food, is an action that potentially eliminates or reduces the availability of a particular plant has a significant effect on the human environment.”

The Court concluded that there was “no support in the record” for APHIS’ conclusion that conventional sugar beets would remain available for farmers and consumers and held that the agency’s decision that there would be no impacts from the GE beets “unreasonable.”

The Court also held that APHIS failed to analyze the impacts of biological contamination on the related crops of red table beets and Swiss chard. “Organic seed is the foundation of organic farming and organic food integrity, said Mathew Dillion, Director of Advocacy of the Organic Seed Alliance. “We must continue to protect this natural resource, along with the rights of organic farmers to be protected from negative economic impact from GE crops, and consumers rights’ to choose to eat food free of GE components.”

“The ruling is a major consumer victory for preserving the right to grow and eat organic foods in the United States,” stated Neil Carman of the Sierra Club. “Environmental impacts of Roundup Ready sugar beets were also not considered by APHIS, and they need to be fully evaluated.”

“Roundup Ready” crops allow farmers to douse their fields with Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide without killing the crop. Constant application of the herbicide has resulted in the rapid emergence of Roundup-resistant weeds. There are now millions of acres across the U.S. infested with such “superweeds,” including marestail, pigweed and ragweed, and farmers are using greater applications of Roundup or other, even more toxic chemicals. According to an independent analysis of USDA data by the former Executive Director of the National Academy of Sciences’ Board on Agriculture, Dr. Charles Benbrook, GE crops increased herbicide use in the U.S. by 138 million pounds in the nine years from1996 (when GE Roundup Ready crops were introduced) to 2004.

Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff noted, “Although touted by Monsanto as offering all sorts of benefits, GE crops offer consumers nothing, and are designed primarily to sell herbicides. The end result of their use is more toxics in our environment and our food, disappointed farmers, and revenue for Monsanto.”

A 2008 scientific study revealed that Roundup formulations and metabolic products cause the death of human embryonic, placental, and umbilical cells in vitro even at low concentrations. Other recent studies suggest that ingredients in Roundup are endocrine disrupters, and that exposure to Roundup is lethal to some species of amphibians.

In addition, Judge Jeffrey S. White – in his ruling – has scheduled a meeting in his courtroom on October 30, 2009 to discuss the remedies phase of the case, including potential injunctive relief.

There is increasing speculation that the Department of Justice’s antitrust division is scrutinizing Monsanto’s allegedly anticompetitive practices in the markets for GE seeds and traits.

The case is Center for Food Safety v. Vilsack, No. C 08-00484 JSW (N.D. Cal. 2009). The decision follows on the heels of a June 2009 decision from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirming the illegality of the APHIS’ approval of Monsanto’s genetically engineered alfalfa.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

USDA Hearings Start on Corporate-Backed Food Safety Scheme - Plan Threatens Local and Organic Family Farmers

  • National Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement Could Harm Local, Family-scale and Organic Growers
    Corporate Agribusiness Proposes Regulating Itself Instead of Stricter Governmental Food Safety Oversight
    The Cornucopia Institute, Sept 22, 2009
    Straight to the Source

USDA hearings begin this week on a proposal that would authorize the development of production and handling regulations for a long list of fresh vegetables, primarily leafy greens.  The first of seven national hearings starts Tuesday, September 22 in Monterey, California, and then will shift to other locations across the country.

The proposed marketing agreement would allow leafy green handlers to attach a USDA-backed "food safety seal" to lettuce, spinach, cabbage and other vegetables while prohibiting most organic and local farmers selling through farmers markets, CSAs, roadside stands, and those selling directly to retailers from using the same seal.

The plan, hatched and promoted by some of the nation's largest corporate agribusinesses that distribute vegetables, is similar to a controversial California agreement that was put into place after spinach, contaminated with E. coli bacteria, sickened 199 people in 26 states and left three dead in September, 2006. 

"This proposed food safety agreement will do nothing to tackle the root cause of the food safety problem, which is, in most cases, manure from confined animal feeding operations that is tainted with disease causing pathogenic bacteria," said Will Fantle, of the Wisconsin-based farm policy group, The Cornucopia Institute.

Industry proponents pushing this will be hard pressed to demonstrate that their proposal will actually prevent food borne illness.  Just days ago, on September 18, Ippolito International, a signatory to the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement, recalled 1,715 cartons of spinach due to salmonella contamination.     

But the proposed safety standards, which have been described as a "corporate-backed marketing ploy," may give agribusinesses using the new food safety seal a boost and lead many consumers to assume that vegetables from industrial-scale monoculture farms, primarily in California, are safer than the leafy greens available from local growers around the country.  And that has some farmers worried.

"I am concerned that organic, and small and medium sized local growers like myself, will become marketplace 'second-class citizens' in the eyes of some consumers, by implying that my produce is less safe - when the very opposite is likely to be true," said Tom Willey, a certified organic vegetable grower from Madera, CA.

In fact, the produce most likely to be implicated in foodborne illness outbreaks are the bags of leafy greens on supermarket shelves rather than organic produce bought directly from a farmer or when distributed to a local co-op or specialty retailer.  

In addition, farmers who want to sell to handlers using the new food safety seal will likely have to implement costly record-keeping and testing protocols on their acreage.  This is economically unfeasible for many small growers.

Some farmers may even have to undo decades of conservation and habitat-based improvements - such as water and shoreland stream buffers - in the attempt to isolate their crops from wildlife, that have never been proven to be the source of past contamination problems.  "Isolating wildlife is a smokescreen deflecting concern away from factory farm livestock production which is demonstrated to create water, air and soil contamination," Fantle added.

The September 18th edition of the New York Times ran a disturbing cover story about widespread contamination of well water in states with high concentrations of industrial-scale livestock facilities.  Contaminated water in rural areas, used for irrigation or for washing vegetables, has been implicated in past contamination incidents involving fresh vegetables.

"The Cornucopia Institute agrees that the safety of our food supply is a vitally important issue," said Fantle.  "This is precisely why we believe that the USDA should not allow corporate handlers to mix serious food safety concerns with their self-serving marketing interests."



Up until this proposal, food safety has been under the purview of the Food and Drug Administration.  The USDA's limited food safety responsibilities primarily concern the nation's meat supply.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Agrichemical Revolutionary

Thoughts on the legacy of Norman Borlaug
Tom Philpott
GRIST, 14 Sep 2009

In the early 1940s, Mexico was a fraught region for U.S. geopolitical strategists. Not so long before—1939—a revolutionary government had nationalized the Mexican oil supply, dealing a sharp blow to U.S. oil interests, especially the Rockefeller family’s dominant Standard Oil. Meanwhile, as war raged in Europe, there was doubt about which side the Mexican government would take—the Allies or the Axis. What if Mexico chose to supply the Germans with oil?

Into that tense milieu, the Rockefeller family’s foundation dispatched a team of agricultural scientists into the Mexican countryside on a mission of goodwill: to bring Mexican farmers the seed varieties, knowledge, and inputs necessary to “modernize” crop production.

As the University of Texas economist Harry Cleaver put it in a 1972 paper in American Economic Review, “The friendly gesture of a development project would not only help soften rising nationalism but might also help hang onto wartime friends.”

One of the junior scientists on that mission would become the best known, eventually netting a Nobel Peace Prize for his work: Norman Borlaug, who died Sunday at the age of 95.

Borlaug is widely hailed as the father of the Green Revolution—the grand effort, which started in Mexican wheat and corn fields in the 1940s, to bring industrial agriculture to the global South.

There’s no evidence that Borlaug thought much about geopolitics during his career as a plant pathologist and evangelist for industrial agriculture. In their book Enough—largely a Borlaug hagiography—the Wall Street Journal reporters Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman portray him as a man almost innocent of politics: He started out with a narrow scientific interest in wheat rust and a desire to “secure a steady job where he could work outdoors”; by the ‘60s and for the rest of his long life, he wanted merely to “do what was best for the hungry,” the authors write.

Rather than focusing on the social relations around agriculture, Borlaug honed in on one thing: increasing yield. For him, the complexities of poverty and hunger could be reduced to a single problem: not enough food. From there, the answer was simple: grow as much as possible, using whatever technology available.

For Thurow and Kilman, Borlaug stands as an “international hero, an example of what an individual can accomplish in the quest to end hunger.” That view is conventional, nearly universal. Borlaug’s accomplishments inspire a kind of awe—and rhetorical flights. “A towering scientist” and a “great benefactor of humankind,” declared the U.N.‘s Food and Agriculture Organization in a communique after Borlaug’s death. The New York Times called him “the plant scientist who did more than anyone else in the 20th century to teach the world to feed itself and whose work was credited with saving hundreds of millions of lives.”

But it may be that Borlaug’s blindness to politics—his refusal to consider the power relations at work in the countries whose hungry he set out to save—undermined his legacy. His tireless effort to boost grain yields, while no doubt resulting in a flood of cheap grain, created all manner of problems that won’t be easily solved.

In Mexico, to be sure, yields of corn and wheat rose dramatically in the areas where Borlaug’s techniques took hold. But while Thurow and Kilman convincingly argue that Borlaug’s main intent was to “help poor farmers,” Mexico’s smallholders have been in a state of severe crisis for more than a generation. The so-called “immigrant crisis” here in the United States is better viewed as an agrarian crisis in Mexico. Since the the advent of NAFTA alone, more than 1.5 million Mexican farmers have been forced off of their land. Since the Mexican manufacturing economy has been nowhere near robust enough to absorb them, a huge portion of one-time Mexican farmers now wash our dishes and harvest our crops.

While the factors contributing to Mexico’s agrarian disaster are multiple and complex—including neoliberal trade policy and U.S. crop subsidies—the zeal to increase yield certainly factors in. In Borlaug’s Green Revolution paradigm, farmers are urged to specialize in one or two commodity crops—say, corn or wheat. To grow them, they were to buy hybridized seeds and ample doses of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and irrigation. (Borlaug’s celebrated “dwarf” varieties can thrive only with plenty of water and lots of synthetic nitrogen, and face serious pest pressure, requiring heavy pesticide doses.) The award for buying into the “Green Revolution package” was a bumper crop. The problem was that when everyone did the same thing and yields spiked, the price farmers received for their crops plunged.

The result is a kind of vicious cycle: farmers scramble to produce more to offset losses, leading to yet more downward pressure on prices. Of course, there’s the temptation to boost yields with yet more inputs like fertilizer—meaning that farmers’ costs could continue creeping up even as the prices they received in the marketplace fell steadily. The result is a kind of structural economic crisis in farming.

The winners in the game are not farmers, but rather the buyers of the cheap commodities (mainly transnational grain processors like Archer Daniels Midland and Cargill) as well as input suppliers (like Monsanto, Dupont, and, again, Cargill) that sell the needed seeds and agrichemicals. As I’ve written before, Mexico’s grain trade—both corn and wheat—has fallen largely under the control of U.S. agribusiness giants, and its culinary staple, the tortilla, has succumbed to a kind of vapid industrialization.

Urban residents do benefit from cheaper food prices, to be sure; but it’s worth emphasizing that in post-Green Revolution Mexico, urban poverty and malnutrition has remained stubbornly persistent, as anyone who has visited Mexico City in the past 20 years can verify.

One of the most ironic things I see in Borlaug obits is the idea that his innovations made countries like Mexico and India “self-sufficient” in food production. Actually, these nations became perilously dependent on foreign input suppliers for their food security.

In India, site of the Green Revolution’s greatest putative triumph, the legacy is even more mixed.

Today in India’s grain belt, less than 40 years after Borlaug’s Nobel triumph, the water table has been nearly completely tapped out by massive irrigation projects, farmers are in severe economic crisis, and cancer rates, seemingly related to agrichemical use, are tragically high.

In other words, to generate the massive yield gains that won Borlaug his Nobel, the nation sacrificed its most productive farmland and a generation of farmers. Meanwhile, as in Mexico, urban poverty and malnutrition in India’s urban centers remained stubbornly persistent.

For me, the point isn’t that Borlaug is a villain and that crop yields don’t matter; rather, it’s that boosting yield alone can’t solve hunger problems in any but the most fleeting way. Farmers’ economic well-being; biodiversity; ecology; local knowledge, buy-in, and food traditions—all of these things matter, too.

As the U.S. and European governments, along with the Gates Foundation, turn their attention to Africa's hunger crisis, I hope those lessons are heeded—despite Borlaug's near-canonization as a modern-day saint.

Friday, September 11, 2009

EPA approves complex engineered crop behind closed doors

Union of Concerned Scientists
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has approved the most complex genetically engineered (GE) crop ever to enter the U.S. food supply, without notifying the public or inviting public comment. SmartStax, a variety of corn containing eight new genes—six for insect resistance and two for herbicide tolerance—is significantly different from the three-gene corn varieties that the agency previously approved. Monsanto and Dow Chemical, the joint developers of SmartStax, expect the new variety to be grown on three to four million acres next year, the largest launch ever of a GE crop. The EPA excluded the public from the SmartStax decision process on the grounds that it had already approved other varieties containing the individual genes. The agency also bowed to industry pressure to lower safeguards against insect pests becoming resistant to the new genes. Read more from Bloomberg.
"We are disappointed that the new administration's first approval of a major new GE crop was done behind closed doors. SmartStax raises important risk issues such as the potential for insects to develop resistance to the new gene combination that should have been addressed in a transparent, participatory process." ~ Jane Rissler, Deputy Director/Senior Scientist

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

USDA Seeks Comment on Oleic Acid Soybean Deregulation

The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is seeking public comment on a petition submitted by Pioneer Hi-Bred International to deregulate a genetically modified soybean variety that contains higher levels of oleic acid, a monounsaturated omega-9 fatty acid commonly found in olive oil. APHIS has regulated the soybean through its notification and permitting process since 2002.

If APHIS grants the petition for deregulation, the GM soybean and its progeny can be planted freely without the requirement of permits. APHIS said that scientific evidence indicates that there are unlikely to be any environmental, human health or food safety concerns associated with the GM soybean. Pioneer has also submitted documents to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). FDA concluded its review and had no further questions regarding the safety of the GM soybean.

For more information, read

USDA Deregulates Genetically Engineered Papaya

After a thorough review of scientific information, public comments, and an environmental assessment, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) said that it will deregulate the genetically engineered (GE) papaya designated as event X17-2. The papaya and its progeny can now be moved freely and planted without regulatory oversight by APHIS.

The University of Florida submitted a petition to APHIS to deregulate the GE papaya, which is genetically engineered to be resistant to papaya ringspot virus.

View for additional information.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Proposed Federal Rules Could Competitively Injure Small, Local and Organic Fresh Market Produce Growers

USDA Schedules Public Hearings to Obtain Citizens’ Concerns and Suggestions

The “Leafy Green Marketing Agreement,” which requires producers to follow a set of rules (metrics) in the name of food safety, has already shown to be injurious for the environment, biodiversity, and organic growers in California. The USDA is now considering a similar “Leafy Green Marketing Agreement” that would extend beyond California and Arizona to cover the entire United States—let’s help make this rule work for growers of all sizes!

The USDA has scheduled a series of hearing sessions, around the country, inviting you to this perfect opportunity to share your concerns and suggestions.

Click here to view the USDA announcement in the Federal Register.

Make your voice heard!—if you are able to attend, we urge you to speak on behalf of the organic and family-scale farming community. (See below for locations and dates.)

High Quality and Organic Growers Competitively Disadvantaged

Producers’ experiences in California, where these metrics have been in place for several years, reveal what is at stake. While food safety is a legitimate national concern, organic and small-scale farmers bear a disproportionate economic burden of these metrics. Consider this:

  • An estimate from leafy green growers in California indicates an average expenditure of $18,000/ year per farm for food safety efforts.
  • Metrics require the expense of regular laboratory testing of irrigation water, soil amendments, fertilizers and sometimes seeds and transplants.
  • Growers must have someone regularly monitor fields for wildlife and domestic animal incursions and documentation of all their efforts and testing is required.
  • Farms with more acreage generally spend more to comply with the metrics but can experience some economies of scale due to larger field sizes and existing staff—these burdens could force the safest farms out of business.
  • Smaller farms often have smaller field sizes, grow more diverse crops and raise livestock as well. These farms don’t usually have staff available to help them comply with complicated record-keeping requirements nor can they afford to hire extra help. They incur higher expenses per acre due to their smaller field sizes and greater complexity and disproportionately high testing/inspection costs.
  • The requirement to have traceability of the produce grown also poses significant financial and record keeping challenges for many growers—organic farmers are already required to do much of this—it is redundant for organic growers—and local direct marketers have a special relationship with customers facilitating trace back.
  • Biodiversity Threatened

    The environmental impacts of the Leafy Green metrics have also been alarming. Since wildlife, non-crop vegetation (wild habitat), and water bodies could be viewed as food safety risks, many environmentally positive, conservation and habitat-oriented practices that growers have implemented in California have been forced to be destroyed or abandoned by growers threatened with the rejection of their crops.

    If these metrics are adopted nationally, organic farmers across the nation could face difficulties balancing organic requirements, to promote biodiversity, with metrics seeking elimination of wildlife and non-crop vegetation.

    Voluntary Regulations?

    Although the USDA has defined this regulation as “voluntary,” it is important to realize that in California, this has not been the case. Large grocery chains and distributors have refused to purchase produce from growers unless they are a signatory to the “leafy greens” program, making this a defacto rule. Don’t let the voluntary nature of this program dissuade you from recognizing the impact this proposal could have on small, local and organic growers.

    Make Your Voice Heard!

    The USDA organized public hearings to glean citizens’ concerns and suggestions. The USDA invites you to present evidence at the hearing on the possible economic impacts of the proposal on small businesses.

    When and Where:

  • Monterey, California
    September 22-24
  • Jacksonville, Florida
    September 30-October 1
  • Columbus, Ohio
    October 6
  • Denver, Colorado
    October 8
  • Yuma, Arizona
    October 14-15
  • Syracuse, New York
    October 20
  • Charlotte, North Carolina
    October 22
  • All hearing sessions are scheduled for 8:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.

    Stay tuned! The Cornucopia Institute, in partnership with other public interest groups, will shortly issue a more comprehensive action alert including talking points, information to submit written comments, sample letters and detailed instructions and help regarding appearing at the public hearings (including the precise location of each hearing).

    We encourage other NGOs that would like to collaborate on this project to contact us. A number of other groups have also invested in developing an excellent knowledgebase and networking together will leverage our work on behalf of family farmers and consumers.

    Microsoft pushes for single global patent system

    Note: Although this story is not immediately agriculture related, the implications for those of us concerned about GM foods and biotech are obvious.

    A senior lawyer at Microsoft is calling for the creation of a global patent system to make it easier and faster for corporations to enforce their intellectual property rights around the world.

    In a blog posting on Tuesday, Microsoft's Deputy General Counsel Horacio Gutierrez said that a backlog of patent applications internationally was needed to tackle the 3.5 million pending patent applications around the world--including around 750,000 in the US.

    "In today's world of universal connectivity, global business and collaborative innovation, it is time for a world patent that is derived from a single patent application, examined and prosecuted by a single examining authority and litigated before a single judicial body," said Guiterrez. "A harmonized, global patent system would resolve many of the criticisms leveled at national patent systems over unmanageable backlogs and interminable pendency periods."

    Guiterrez went on to praise efforts to harmonize international patent systems through projects such ad the Patent Prosecution Highway and the "IP5" partnership but said more needed to be done to allow corporations to protect their intellectual property.

    "By facing the challenges, realizing a vision, overcoming political barriers, and removing procedural obstacles we can build a global patent system that will promote innovation, enrich public knowledge, encourage competition and drive economic growth and employment," he added. "The time is now--the solutions are in reach."

    Microsoft's calls to speed up the issuing of patents come shortly after the company was prosecuted in Texas for patent infringement concerning its Word application. In August, US District Court for the Eastern District of Texas issued a permanent injunction that "prohibits Microsoft from selling or importing to the United States any Microsoft Word products that have the capability of opening .XML, .DOCX or DOCM files (XML files) containing custom XML", according to a statement released by attorneys for the plaintiff, i4i.

    Commenting on Microsoft's appeal of the ruling late last month. i4i chairman Loudon Owen told ZDNet UK's sister site, CNET News, that the software giant's attitude was "extraordinary." "It captures the hostile attitude of Microsoft toward inventors who dare to enforce patents against them," Owen said. "It is also blatantly derogatory about the court system."

    Microsoft's stance on stronger software patents has attracted opposition from the open-source community and other antipatent campaigners.

    The founder of the GNU Linux project Richard Stallman, recently warned against the use of Mono software tools as they exposed users to potential patent violation accusations from Microsoft. In an article published by the Free Software Foundation, Stallman said that "only fools would ignore" the threat poised by Microsoft's patents.

    The UK Pirate Party, which was registered by the electoral commission last month, is also opposed to the current patent system--especially in the area of health care--and has put reform of the process at the center of its campaign for the next election. "Monopolies maintained by companies producing life-saving drugs mean people are dying, as they can't afford (treatment)," the party's leader Andrew Robinson told ZDNet UK last month.

    Microsoft's backing for greater cooperation on the issue has the backing of other organizations. The World Intellectual Property Organization is planning to hold a conference on global enforcement of intellectual property rights in Geneva on the 17th and 18th of September. "IP systems need to keep pace with globalizing trends in innovation and business practices," the organization said in a statement. "The symposium offers stakeholders an opportunity to explore how existing highly diverse national and regional IP infrastructures can be developed to support the dynamics of innovation which is increasingly transnational and borderless."

    FSF Europe and the UK Pirate Party were approached for comment but did not reply in time for this story.

    Andrew Donoghue of ZDNet UK reported from London.